Cantus Angelicus - Gregorian Chant
They spoke about it
On the hill of Saint Mary’s Abbey, overlooking the Lake of Two Mountains, Quebec, the Benedictine moniales pray with Gregorian chant seven times a day and once a night. Like the monks’ Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, Saint Mary’s belongs to the congregation of Solesmes, which counts 31 monasteries on 3 continents. Founded in 1936 by four moniales from Notre-Dame de Wisques in the Pas-de-Calais, France, along with a group of Canadian Sisters, the community is proud to uphold the Solesmes legacy to this day, a continuing challenge admittedly requiring much creativity.
Monk, monastery, and monastic: three words that immediately evoke God, from Monos, a Greek word at the root of the notion of solitude and separation. Solitary, simple, united… for God alone! The Benedictine monks and moniales are children of St. Benedict (480-557), Benedictus, the Blessed One. Benedict is recognized as the father of Western monks through the Rule of monastic life he bequeathed, the Regula monachorum: “Listen O my son… Prefer nothing to the love of Christ, apply yourself frequently to prayer.” After flourishing during the Middle Ages, the Monastic Order was restored in 1833 in Solesmes by Dom Prosper Guéranger, who sought to rekindle a spirit inspired by Antiquity. Hence, Benedictine life has revolved around the contemplation of the Mystery of Christ experienced through a solemn liturgy and an ongoing, living tradition, all the while in tune with the contemporary Church.
To speak of an abbey means to speak of Abba: father… or mother. An abbey is an autonomous monastery headed by an Abbot or an Abbess, which confers an instant family atmosphere to the community. How does one learn to sing? This is where the “living tradition” is of great importance: singing is learned at home at the monastery; still today, the young Benedictines study Gregorian chant, thus ensuring the continuing vitality of worship inspired from within the community.
The love of Latin and of Gregorian chant are related, in the spirit of Solesmes, to the recognition of the Vatican Council II and of the renewed liturgical norms of Mass: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy” (Vatican II). Very fond of Gregorian chant, Pope Paul VI had given the Benedictines the responsibility of keeping the treasure of Gregorian prayer alive; to the Benedictine moniales, he said: “Your contemplative consecration must express the spiritual beauty and art of every daily action. If this is so, be assured that the walls of you homes will become like crystal; your monasteries will shed all about them a sheer emanation of peace, silence, and joy” (October 28, 1966).
In the footsteps of Dom Joseph Gajard (1885-1972), choirmaster at Solesmes and first to make recordings of Gregorian chant, the moniales of Saint Mary’s offer a selection of pieces dedicated to angels. The secret of this recording doesn’t lie in the pursuit of musical exploits, but in the sharing of a prayer among family members. Almost all of the 37 moniales—of various backgrounds and ages—participated in the recording, which was produced in an atmosphere of joy, love, and even friendly humour. The listeners, too, are invited to become brothers and sisters of the Benedictine moniales by delving into their prayer, since “singing is like praying twice.”
Gregorian Chant – The Song of Angels?
There exists a type of song that is nothing but prayer. According to the monks of the Middle Ages, its inspiration came from the Spirit of God that dwelled within the singers. It sprang from God’s Word, recorded in the Bible and proclaimed in one of the most musical of languages, Latin. From the 7th to the 12th century, the words were enveloped in ever more expressive melodies. Associated with the name of Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604)—friend of the angels, entranced by the thought of Heaven, who watched over the beauty of Church song—Gregorian chant is a sacred art, designed for divine worship. St. Gregory’s patronage has had a lasting legacy. It has been said that without his influence, the Middle Ages would not have been what they were: an era when Christianity was familiar with the presence of angels and already living closely with the inhabitants of the celestial world.
Many Gregorian texts and motifs evoke the angels come sing peace unto the earth. By profession, so to speak, our big brothers the angels, those myriads of purely spiritual creatures, sing the peace of God which they ceaselessly contemplate and love of an ardent love. Is it because Gregorian chant was born of and for prayer alone, or because it is monody sung without accompaniment, that we so often find it angelic? Be that as it may, monks and moniales, as schooled by St. Benedict, tend to unite their voices with those of the angels present in the monastery’s temple.
Kyriale, introits, graduals, alleluias, and offertories for eucharistic celebrations; antiphons, hymns, and responsories for the Liturgy of the Hours; sequences and a variety of canticles: these are some of the multitude of genres that are found in books of Gregorian chant. There is a specific repertoire for Mass and for the Divine Office; an entire miniature library is at the disposal of each moniale: this way, boredom never sets in. Even more variety is ensured by the complementarity of styles: the syllabic style for sequences and short antiphons; the neumatic style, when the melody is embellished by several neumes per syllable, in introits, offertories, and responsories; and the melismatic style, where soars a melisma, a long melodic flight of pure joy. This great variety also partakes of freedom, since never is Gregorian rhythm measured. Every note, or “neume,” is unique, its time primordial, and it must be performed accordingly.
Favoured by many of our ancestors, the famous Kyriale de Angelis (of Angels), 8th among the 18 choices of Gregorian Kyriale, still warrants attention. “The title De Angelis associates it with the feasts of angels. Because of its continual change from B to B-flat, a major key may come to mind. The Kyrie is a joyous song of praise followed by a humble prayer of mercy and pity. The popular tune adds zest to such a uniting and lively song of praise.” (F. Haberl, Das Kyriale Romanum, 1975.)
The works chosen here carry us over the horizons of divine grace and clear across the Heavens, accompanying the long flight of the angels that begins with the Gloria of Christmas and the anticipation of Easter… and ends with the admission of their protégés to Paradise. First, a Woman surrounded by angels, Mary, is hailed incomparably by the great alleluia Asumpta. The songs for the Blessed Sacrament are also very popular, notably the Panis angelicus. Right after the Kyriale, two canticles—In excelso throno and Adorate Deum—form a diptych of musical icons portraying Christ adored by the angelic spirits. Our guardian angels also deserve mention, the “Gregorian” angels having their work cut out: in addition to praising God, they must watch over the sons and daughters of mankind during their earthly pilgrimage. The two final sections seek to comfort those who are distressed with grief; the angels care for the departed, but the funeral doesn’t get the last word. This goes to the joy of Heaven, to the cheerful host of angels and saints.
Eight modes, and more still, impart to Gregorian chant hues that would long be forgotten. Editors indicate the mode with a Roman numeral placed beside the title of a piece. How could one not be sensitive to the peaceful, sometimes solemn (the offertory Stetit) character of the 1st mode? Usually leaning toward contemplative simplicity (the hymn Tibi Christe), the 2nd mode touches on exuberance in the melismas of the Angelis suis gradual. Known as the ecstatic mode, the mode on E generates enthusiasm in the rhythmus Exsultemus et lætemur (3rd), only to lend its more contemplative character to the responsory Quem vidistis and especially to the admirable hymn Urbs Ierusalem (4th mode). Corresponding to our F major, the 5th and 6th tones are distinguished by the more held back, lulling nature of the 6th mode (Ave Regina cælorum). The 7th mode, used in the antiphon In paradisum, is associated with the most vibrant expression of joy and hope. There remains plenty of joy for the 8th mode, although it is tinged with more gravity, more solemnity, and marked by steadfast conviction (the alleluia Angelus Domini).
In St. Gregory’s mind, from the dawn of the Middle Ages to this day, Gregorian chant has had but a single purpose: to please God by having His children sing. Monks and moniales appreciate it mainly for its simplicity. Driven by limited musical means, Gregorian chant is essentially a great Pauper; it creates within us a pure heart, a humble heart, a peaceful heart.
The cover art of this CD is based on graphic elements taken from the monastic tradition of Sainte-Marie des Deux-Montagnes Abbey. The font used for the title reproduces uncial writing, which originated in the 3rd or 4th century. Used by the early Christians, and later by monks, this lettering reached its peak during the 5th century in ecclesiastical texts, and remained unchanged till the 12th century. Mother Maura Chabry, moniale at St. Mary’s, drew the letters C and S from an 11th-century Lectionary from the Abbey of Montmajour (Provence).
The initial letter O, with its meticulous interlacing, harkens back to the Saxon inspiration of the Echternach Sacramentary (Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, 10th century). The black clasps set with white studs, and placed here as the fitments of an ancient binding, were taken from the Second Bible of Charles the Bald, the most lavish of Franco-Saxon manuscripts (9th century).
© Sister Bernadette-Marie Roy, o.s.b.
Translation: Jacques-André Houle